You’ve been let down by big, gaudy pans of paella—symmetries of overcooked seafood and meat. The rice is too wet, ridiculously yellow, and always tastes of faint and watery disappointment.
But pick yourself up and head to Cata, a pretty new tapas bar on Bowery. The paella there is made with care, cooked in an extremely thin layer that clings to the wide metal pan. It doesn’t look like much, but why would it? Paella should taste better than it looks, and not the other way around. After all, the dish was first prepared by eastern Spain’s rice-field laborers, who cooked outside with whatever ingredients they could find on their lunch break—fish, snails, maybe a wild rabbit caught in a trap.
This being present-day Lower Manhattan and not the Valencian countryside, the cooks can reach for pretty much whatever they like. In the restaurant’s richest and most exciting version of paella ($30 for the smaller pan), you’ll find mushrooms and duck confit, a house duck sausage made from the legs and breast, and a little seared foie gras. But the meat is not the star of the dish, it’s only the garnish—Cata’s paella is all about the traditional bomba rice, that firm Spanish variety, sweet here with sofrito, savory with duck stock, brown and crisp along the edges. You’ll want to steady the hot pan with a folded cloth napkin so you can scrape every last grain from its surface.
Cata is the second restaurant from Christopher Chesnutt and Ewa Olsen, who own Alta, a smart, two-story West Village spot that also serves Spanish tapas. But Cata is fresher than its sister—lighter, brighter, more informal. The metal barstools can be slippery, and there’s always the risk of a little awkwardness at the long communal tables, but service is proficient and the dining room isn’t crowded, with huge windows looking onto Stanton Street, letting in the light. Who knew this corner space was so beautiful? Before it was converted into Cata last fall, it was a storage facility for Bari, the old, family-owned restaurant-equipment store just across the street, cluttered with pizza ovens and speed racks.
Larry Baldwin, whose first introduction to cooking Spanish food was under Andy Nusser at Casa Mono, runs Cata’s kitchen, and many of the tapas he serves are excellent. Tiny cubes of fried chickpea purée ($5) are hot and fluffy, dusted with chile powder and a chiffonade of mint. They sort of disappear on the tongue, and are an ideal snack to accompany a round of gin and tonics. There are dozens of variations of the Spanish obsession with G&Ts on the menu, each made with a different gin, served with a side of tonic, and garnished with all sorts of things, from Thai chiles and kaffir lime leaves to tiny dry rosebuds.
Many of the traditional tapas are worth ordering, such as the tartines of rustic, chewy grilled slices from Amy’s Bread topped with see-through leaves of lardo ($9.50), or leeks and a smear of romesco ($6). And the crisp patatas bravas ($7.50) make a case for foams on your food—they’re served with a lovely, dense froth of aioli that works like a fluffy mayonnaise. There is kale ($8), of course, whole leaves with edges vblackened on the grill, dressed lightly in buttermilk. Cata’s version of baked oysters ($11) involves a golden crust of bread crumbs and bone marrow, but the oysters tucked underneath remain fat and juicy. Sure, you may run into some small mistakes—a too-gummy potato purée under a row of roast-chicken croquetas—but it may require some effort to eat poorly at Cata.
A “plancha” portion of the menu is filled with very expensive members of the shrimp family, like carabineros from Cadiz ($16.50 a piece) and cigalas from Galicia ($10.50 a piece). But you can get a taste of the sea for less if you order the gambas dripping with olive oil and parsley, petals of caramelized garlic stuck to their heads and tails, served by the heapful ($10.50). A few dishes labeled “land” will send you to oxtail, steak, and a fine dish of lamb ribs ($16), braised in red wine and stock, smoked over applewood, and served with pickled vegetables. The large plates are trickier to share than the portioned tapas, but will work fine for two people who like each other.
Desserts are not bad, but they aren’t great. (See my ongoing lament about restaurants lacking full-time pastry chefs.) The chocolate terrine (which amounts to a slice of chocolate ganache) is just too rich, with nothing to balance it out but a few crunchy shards of toasted bread, salt, and olive oil. A rice pudding is thrown off balance by an excess of cardamom. Baldwin’s grapefruit sorbet ($7) with soft cava jelly, however, is sharp and well executed. After such great quantities of savory food, the best way to end a meal at Cata might also be the lightest.